The city of Greenville, Mississippi issued an order prohibiting communal religious services. The prohibition was a response to the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic. The prohibition applied no matter what social distancing methods churches used to ensure against spreading the virus.
Greenville aggressively enforced its order. On April 8, police officers broke up a service held in a church parking lot in which there was no person-to-person physical contact. Violating social distancing protocols, officers demanded that those in attendance roll down their car windows, demanded to see driver’s licenses, and wrote out fines of $500 per attendee.
This was too much for the Trump administration. When the church in question responded by suing the City, the Justice Department, through its Civil Rights Division, filed a statement of interest in support of the church. In addition, Attorney General Barr issued a Statement on Religious Practice and Social Distancing.
The Trump administration took the following position, with which no American should find fault:
[E]ven in times of emergency, when reasonable and temporary restrictions are placed on rights, the First Amendment and federal statutory law prohibit discrimination against religious institutions and religious believers. Thus, government may not impose special restrictions on religious activity that do not also apply to similar nonreligious activity. For example, if a government allows movie theaters, restaurants, concert halls, and other comparable places of assembly to remain open and unrestricted, it may not order houses of worship to close, limit their congregation size, or otherwise impede religious gatherings. Religious institutions must not be singled out for special burdens.
Greenville’s order did not meet this standard:
The City of Greenville fined congregants $500 per person for attending these parking lot services – while permitting citizens to attend nearby drive-in restaurants, even with their windows open. The City appears to have thereby singled churches out as the only essential service (as designated by the state of Mississippi) that may not operate despite following all CDC and state recommendations regarding social distancing.
The Justice Department’s intervention seems to have given Greenville pause. It has rescinded the order. Churches will be allowed to proceed with drive-in services, using church parking lots and the radio.
It’s unfortunate that it took a lawsuit plus DOJ involvement to induce Greenville’s mayor, Erick Simmons a law school graduate, to back away from his discriminatory and unconstitutional order. It’s also unfortunate that other jurisdictions want to discriminate in similar ways.
Fortunately, the Trump administration is defending religious liberty and the Constitution against this attack. We hope its intervention in the Greenville case will cause other jurisdictions to back off.